06 December 2009

The bank of laughter and forgetting

My favourite cartoon series is Bloom County, which ran between 1980 and 1989, charting the incongruous banalities of an eclectic mix of characters in a mythical mid-American small town. In one strip from 1988, a ne'er-do-well propositions Opus, the naive penguin, about a hypothetical drug habit he is considering starting. He suggests to Opus that, if he were to develop a serious addiction, the cost in terms of crime, law enforcement, treatment and rehabilitation would be about $1200 per American, but if Opus were to pay him $100 now, he'd take up philately instead. I felt a little like Opus this week about the news of RBS's proposed £1m+ bonus payments and subsequent row with the government, its main creditor.

While I am not above a little banker bashing, I also recognise, as the part-owner of several banks, it is in my interest to get as good a price for them as possible. And it is not a total myth that the best people in any labour pool will attract the best remuneration, though it can be overstated. To suggest the best Investment Bankers will work for RBS out of public spiritedness is absurd, and to pay them below market rate is to leave cash on the table in New York. So how do we express our displeasure while recognising the realities of a fluid labour market? I think I have the answer, and I shall call it Clown Day.

Last year, at the height of the bank bail-outs, some senior members of the banking community did actually go on the record to say sorry. But in the intervening months since then, we've heard precious little of the 's' word from the lips of increasingly cocky members of Investment Banking world. While levels of champagne consumption at Canary Wharf may not quite have reached 2005 levels, the bonus bleating seems to indicate horrifically short memories. So here's where the clowns come in.

I would decree that for one day a year, say 15 September, everyone who works for a bank who is in line for a bonus above a set level, such as £297,920, must dress as a clown in full regalia: wig, funny nose, braces and long feet. Furthermore, they would have to spend the day on street corners in the west end of London hawking for change; any change they do receive would be given to victims of their folly, any abuse received they would keep. It would become an annual spectacle, even a tourist event to raise badly needed cash for the Exchequer.

This is not class war (which is apparently back in fashion), but the chance to show humility. September 15 is the date Lehman Brothers went bust, and should serve as a chilling reminder to all in the world of finance just what can happen if a government doesn't choose to underwrite their foolishness. The world, much less the taxpayer, does not owe them a living, and the day would give them a period of reflection away from the alpha male bear pit of the sales floor to appreciate the enormously privileged position they are in, and the responsibility they carry.

£297,920 is the annual salary of the Governor of the Bank of England, dwarfed by the opulence of the Square Mile's highest earners, but someone who does, at least, have to consider the national interest. In years to come, when the memories of this recession are as distant to our grandchildren as the Wall Street Crash is to us, we will have an annual reminder of what can happen to those who, entrusted with other people's money, are foolish enough to believe their own publicity

I don't think a day of ashes-and-sackcloth (or in this case, greasepaint and nylon) is too much to ask for a million pound bonus. For that sort of money I'd eat the sweepings from my garage floor. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, a wiser man than me once said. For the bonus boys of RBS who cannot remember it, they should be condemned and repeat the day they were shown to be clowns.

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